Art is Not Entrepreneurship

by Rainey Knudson May 12, 2019

“Trust me, it is possible to be an artist and have nothing for sale.” – Jim Pirtle


David Hammons, Bliz-aard and Ball Sale, 1983

I studied entrepreneurship in business school, and I’ll never forget one time when a strategy professor rather theatrically asked me for my wallet in front of the class. He was making a point about what business is all about: getting people to hand over their money in exchange for something. The Goal — as the classic b-school novel teaches — is to make money.

The word “entrepreneur” comes from the French word entreprendre, meaning “to undertake,” and it has a general etymological sense of being about new ventures and self-reliance. We use it to describe people who start businesses from scratch in order to engage in the basic transaction of something-for-money.

But not all start-up businesses are entrepreneurial; there is a difference between true entrepreneurship and running a small business. A person who starts a mom-and-pop corner store selling sodas and toothpaste is a small business owner, not an entrepreneur. The 20th-century economist Peter Drucker wrote, “To be entrepreneurial, an enterprise has to have special characteristics over and above being new and small. Indeed, entrepreneurs are a minority among new businesses. They create something new, something different; they change or transmute values… The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”

Entrepreneurship is risky: the rate of failure is high, and many entrepreneurs go broke in their ventures. But if you are successful as an entrepreneur, you can make far more money than you can in a more traditional career. Furthermore, there is a freedom in starting a business that does not exist in getting a “normal” job. Entrepreneurship thus attracts people of a certain mentality: risk takers, wildcatters, people who value things like independence and control over one’s fate more than they value security. People who dream about changing the world.

We admire entrepreneurs greatly in America. There’s a reason that every business school now has a fully developed entrepreneurship track, if not an entire program dedicated to it. And clearly, our understanding of what entrepreneurs do is similar to our understanding of what artists do. Artists are risk-takers. Artists change or transmute values. Artists dream about changing the world.

And so many people think that artists are entrepreneurs. Indeed, a whole cottage industry of rather silly career training for artists has arisen based on this notion (“Learn How to Break Into the Art Market in One Day!”). It’s true that artists must be resourceful, and that it’s helpful for them to be good at business, and that they start things from scratch. But artists having to find a way to survive while they make their art is not the same as entrepreneurship. And artists who enter into so-called art with the idea that they are starting a business — a transaction of something for money — are almost never making art. They are making something else, usually decoration. It’s a gamble, sure, but it’s certainly not a new idea, either as business or as art.

There are exceptions that prove the rule, of course. Andy Warhol famously said that good business is the best art, and in his pro-capitalist Rozz-Tox Manifesto from 1980, the artist Gary Panter said, “We are building a business-based art movement. This is not new. Admitting it is.” In a 2014 interview for the New York Times, Olafur Eliasson humorously described the difficulty of executing a large-scale project in Venice, saying “If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon. So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition.”

But even artists who are good at the administrative side of running large studios with many employees are not entrepreneurs. These activities look similar and involve many of the same skills, but there is a seminal, intrinsic difference between entrepreneurship and art, which is the purpose of the activity itself: the ultimate goal of entrepreneurship is to make money. There is no goal with art.

Consider the most obvious artist-as-entrepreneur: Jeff Koons. Like many artists, Koons makes products that he exchanges for money. If you consider his primary material to be stainless steel, then his work is not very interesting. It’s just overpriced decoration, no better or worse (albeit larger) than something you’d find at Target. But if you consider Koons’ material to be the art world itself — that his art is a form of social sculpture that deals with the business of the art world, that he embraces the chaos and unpredictability of human beings making money and acquiring power within in a system (in his case, the art market) as the essential, very abstract, materials of his practice… well, then it becomes much more interesting.

jeff-koons balloon sculptures

Many artists use money in their work, either physically as a material, or conceptually, as in the case of David Hammons’ Bliz-aard and Ball Sale from 1983, when the artist sold snowballs on the street during a blizzard in New York City. Exploring ideas around money or business or value does not cheapen art; indeed, as Dave Hickey pointed out in his book Air Guitar, money and art are parallel systems of value, different and unique. Probing where and how these two systems intersect can be interesting fodder for artists — and many artists have found a way to survive such that the vehicle of their survival, i.e. their “job,” is their “art.”

But the minute an artist’s primary goal becomes money-making, the game is up. The art starts looking like merchandise designed to appeal to a certain buyer category, whether it be people shopping for art to decorate their homes or their vanity museums, or the nonprofit industrial complex. Different ‘art’ of this type works for different customers. Just like toothpaste.

Whereas art that is fundamentally about ideas can scratch an itch that money will never touch. It alerts us to what’s important in life. Which is why we need it, always. And why its price tag is immaterial.



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Frances Bagley May 12, 2019 - 08:19

Rainey, thank you for articulating this distinction!

Margaret Bott May 12, 2019 - 08:39

Important distinction! Thanks, Rainey.

Arienne Lepretre May 12, 2019 - 09:16

Thank you for an interesting article. I had not though about contextualizing Jeff Koons in that way. It opened a new avenue to consider his work.
However I would like to add that whereas making money should not be the primary goal, it definitely is a consideration for many artists, unless independently wealthy. The trick is hold onto ones artistic values and create independently ….its a balancing act and not easy at all

Don Redman May 12, 2019 - 12:28

Great article, it seems to me this is long overdue and should be required reading for all interested in objects makers that insist on using the word art!

Celeste May 12, 2019 - 20:29

I agree with the distinction between small business owner and entrepreneur. However the notion that an artist who focus on earning a profit through their creative skills in object making is not making art but decoration, brings to mind antiquity artists such as Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci who constantly made art through commissions that ended up in museums in which we define the object as art. It was through their creative skill in object making that provided food and shelter. How is it that contemporary artists today’s object making cannot be view as art when they focus on a business model that provides food and shelter sustainably? It doesn’t seem wised to say that an artist must create art for art’s sake for their work to be define by a critic as art.

mark May 13, 2019 - 09:35

Many of us artists’ who have been around long enough to see several decades of art and the art business evolve and reactively choke as the business side of things gets knotted up have also known a few individual artist who annoyingly self-identify with the “make money” art model. Graduate art schools and to a lesser degree UG art schools have a spotty track record of teaching anything resembling a business template for career bound art makers. As a result we mostly bite our lips and affiliated with a brick and mortar gallery and live with the 40-50% commission they levy.
This very complex issue as articulated in Rainey Knudson article opens a lot of doors. One might wonder about nuance and some of the subtle distinctions between what might makes artists ambitious (which is OK) vs. the ones who adopt a crass MBA view of it all (which is “sell out”.). The devil is in the distinctions and we need to be very careful before we expressing distain for those artists who do in fact want to make a living. Selling out is an old refrain and might sound a bit thread bare these days. It is a topic that needs a lot of page space to sort through the complexities.
With the 21st century upon us the art world as we know it will be reinvented and whole new generation will be asking a lot of how to make a living questions. Keeping ones integrity in tact may be the an important theme.

Aaron Parazette May 13, 2019 - 10:06

Here’s a quote I’ve always liked from an essay on the Shakers by Adam Gopnik published in the New Yorker in 2006:

“In American art, the line between the goods and the good is a fine one, and doesn’t benefit from being stared at too hard or cut too finely. In a commercial society, the membrane that separates spirit and store is always permeable.”

Rainey Knudson May 13, 2019 - 12:29

Very elegantly put. I suppose I should add that in no way am I advocating for poverty for artists. I hate the archetype of the suffering, starving artist.

Julie Speed May 13, 2019 - 15:13

When you’re an artist you spend all of your time making art and you don’t have much left for other stuff. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the result is almost always that you will be poor most of your life. It might be an archetype but it’s also just what happens.

Celeste May 14, 2019 - 06:51

Hobby artist anyone? A professional artist would make time for the administration aspect, especially the responsible ones who decided to take on the role of provider within their families. The archétype of ‘starving artist’ in an industry that gross over billion dollars, is not a professional artist, but a hobbyist.

Julie Speed May 14, 2019 - 10:32

Of course you’re right that we need to make time for the business part of the job. That’s a given. However, I don’t think that it’s a given that because an artist makes enough to live on and maybe support a family one year, that you’re going to be able to repeat it the next year and the next, no matter how hard you work and how diligent you are about keeping up the business part of the job. I’ve been both a starving artist and an artist who makes a good living. Since I worked at it full time back then too I don’t think that money is what makes the difference and it certainly is not the criteria for whether the work is good.

Celeste May 15, 2019 - 22:35

I think you are defining the art of a hobbyist not as good in quality of a professional artist. There are many artists who make art as a hobby that can be of greater quality than a professional artist who by definition is producing work to make a living that provides food and shelter. Hobbyist and professional artist are similar in that they’re both artist, different in motivation amongst other reasons. Most small business owners and entrepreneurs don’t consistently bring in the same amount of income each year, that’s where smart financial choices come in to play in order to be sustainably. Perhaps the work needs to change, marketing strategy needs reconsideration, etc..

Lyle Rexer May 20, 2019 - 00:24

Aaron Parazette is a terrific artist and in this case very polite, maybe to a fault. The situation of the artist in America in relation to money has its own peculiar intensity, and it has been an issue for almost two centuries. Melville was clear about this: money corrupts everything and trashes every value. He’s the negative Cyndi Lauper (“money changes everything”). A tougher swallow is Hawthorne’s story “An Artist of the Beautiful” because it hits so close to home. It’s about a situation of compromise and the distortions it brings to the imagination and the life choices of the tortured main character, one Owen Warland (!)(there’s a sex/desire part too). It’s not about being a starving artist or a fat one but of operating in a world where art has no social value, no work to do at all, and so its valuation will always be arbitrary. No matter what the gatekeepers and protectors of the archive may say. But it gets internalized. For both the winners and the losers in that system the outcome of their work is often the same: a distortion of their basic intuitions and impulses. What any artist really wants and needs above all is access to an audience. That’s what needs to be fought for.

Chloë Courtney May 13, 2019 - 12:26

Rainey, thank you for this important article! Commercially saleable objects only constitute one mode of art-making and thinking: actions, interventions, social practice, performance, video, text-based works— all have been critically important in shifting thinking. Hence the need for non-profit and government patronage, alongside commercial sales. Thank you!

Celeste May 13, 2019 - 13:07

Government patronage is tax payer money in which many would voluntarily not give if the threat of lost of freedom weren’t on the table. If you’re an artist that needs/survives on tax payer money to make art, because the free market isn’t working out for you, that provides food and shelter, I believe it’s you that should rethink a more sustainable art making business model.

Rainey Knudson May 14, 2019 - 07:41

Here’s Mark Bradford in a great video from 60 Minutes:

(start at 13:09):
“I think art has value because it has value… I certainly wasn’t going to wait on people to tell me I had value; I’d probably still be waiting.”

You might say it’s easy for Mark Bradford to say that because he’s one of the most successful artists in America today, but even if he weren’t, he would most likely still be making his art (and working in a hair salon to make a living).

Jamie K. Baker May 14, 2019 - 12:41

After thinking about this for a few days, I would suggest that an “either/or” protocol doesn’t help anyone. Art and business need not be at odds with each other, nor do they need to be mutually exclusive unless by choice. It’s important for artists to have a level of comfort and facility in the business world. Art and entrepreneurship can work as a “both/and” proposition.

carolyn May 26, 2019 - 17:52

Thank you for this thoughtful article and the many helpful comments it’s inspired. I may share with others a fatigue with offers of “help” to artists in the form of instruction re- how to be better capitalists, especially to the extent it’s in lieu of adequate financial support for our main work, which might be considered analogous to the kind of basic scientific research that corporations won’t do because there’s no short-term profit in it.

Fwiw, I’ve given some thought to what distinguishes art from other things in connection with my interest in combining art and “reality” in my own practice, and would like to offer the following.

I believe we can and do define art and other things in whatever ways seem most interesting or useful to us at the time. My own current working definition of fine art is that it’s a mode of expression of information that cannot be expressed as well in any other way AND that is distinguishable from other modes in that: (1) it deploys primarily non-literal (metaphorical, ironic, etc.) strategies, as opposed to more literal modes of expression such as you might find in a scientific or journalistic account; and (2) it aims primarily to enhance insight rather than to serve some other purpose, e.g., it does not mainly serve as decor, or aim to manipulate or influence the viewer into buying something they might not buy if they fully appreciated how they were being influenced.

Both of these two characteristics are “shades of gray”-ish; wallpaper, scientific essays, and propaganda are all artful to some degree but remain distinguishable from fine art. E.g., propaganda certainly uses non-literal strategies to appeal to our subconscious desires or fears (Assange is sexually transgressive and dirty), but it fails as art because its primary purpose is to distract and influence us in ways contrary to larger, more important realities. Scientists and journalists to try to enlighten us and sometimes even use metaphor, but they rely mainly on math or more literal language and generally make clear that those more literal modes more accurately express the information they seek to share. Wallpaper can certainly function as fine art, but most wallpaper is not particularly metaphorically informative; its more usual main purpose is to make a room look good. Fashion functions metaphorically insofar as, e.g., it expresses a certain persona or something about the times we live in; but it’s generally less arty than, say, a Nam June Paik sculpture. Michelangelo’s ceiling functioned as propaganda to some degree, but I think everyone would agree that it also enlarged both our ways of seeing and our insight into larger realities.

Note that this working definition does not require art to be purposeless – it does not require art to be and not mean, or to be art for art’s sake; but under this definition, art is also not instrumental in the same way as, say, advertising or wallpaper; AND it’s also distinguishable from, say, a tree, which would also seem to be and not mean, to be a tree for the tree’s sake.

I would also concede that some fine art works, e.g. in the social practice realm, are less arty than others to the extent they operate more literally and/or aim at particular results apart from general enlightenment. That said, I am also currently considering the question of action as metaphor. It cannot be denied that the importance of MLK’s march to Montgomery in terms of direct action was far exceeded by its symbolic impact, which sent shock waves around the world; I believe MLK understood that, and should probably be considered a brilliant artist as well as an activist; one might say his medium was reality (to some degree, you could say that about any art). Many of the best, more overtly socio-politically -oriented fine art projects operate in a similar way; even if Project Row Houses has literally improved particular lives, its symbolic or metaphorical effects have also been extremely important. Warhol’s greatest work may have been his overall practice, which was important not because it was profitable but because of how effectively expressive it was about its larger socio-economic-political context and the artists’ (and others!) position in the world.

These determinations are further complicated insofar as, I hypothesize, language as well as images and other many other modes of expression (other than math? maybe music??) are ultimately, inherently metaphorical (a “tree” is not a tree; it’s a symbol for something we never experience outside our heads). (Indeed, some scientists speculate that “reality” itself may be ultimately, more or less literally metaphorical/holographic.) I’ve also been interested in considering art as a form of code that operates in the world analogously to the way in which computer code operates a computer; i.e., is it like marks on a page that mean things and are interpreted, or is it better understood as more directly causative, not so much meaning and interpreted as simply executed in some secret yet relatively mechanical way?

In sum, however, I’ve entertained the working definition involving the two main characteristics above for many years now, and have found it to hold up better than others while also fitting with other working hypotheses I’ve got (e.g., re- systems and dimensionality).

All of that said, apologies if this is too much for a comment, but thank you for the excuse to try to articulate some things I’ve been thinking about; and I welcome discussion re- all possible improvements to our current definitions.

Heather Bunker February 15, 2023 - 21:33

I have to disagree with your sentiment.

Art is doing anything with sophistication, craft and purpose. I work with entrepreneurial creatives and I hate that we are taught in order to be artists we have to starve. Just because you make money pushing the boundaries and doing what you love does not make you any less of an artist.

One could take the opposite stance and say that true art is ornamental – designed to sit on a shelf or hang on a gallery wall…but even traditional art gets sold and sold for big money.

You can be a lawyer and your art form is law.
You can be a heavy equipment operator and moving dirt is your art.

Art itself is just the practice of doing something with precision, craft and purpose. It can be applied to any career or profession. Art is the same…a profession and is equally entrepreneurial.


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